New Literary History, 2010, 41: 669690
Whitman Unbound: Democracy and Poetic Form, 19121931
. . . the expanded scientific and democratic and truly philosophic and poetic quality of modernism . . .
Walt Whitman, American National Literature (1891)
Has not the time arrived when, (if it must be plain said, for democratic Americas sake, if for no other) there must imperatively come a readjustment of the whole theory and nature of Poetry?1 As with so much else in his insistently proleptic writings, Walt Whitmans urgent rhetorical question leaves the reader with little room for doubt. Here and elsewhere, Whitman aspires to be the foremost theorist of democratic poetics and at the same time its definitive practitioner. In other moments, however, Whitman will write in a more speculative vein, as if he were less sure what it meant to adjust the theory of poetry to the conditions of democracy. He writes more tentatively in his final preface to Leaves of Grass (1892): I consider Leaves of Grass and its theory experimentalas, in the deepest sense, I consider our American republic itself to be, with its theory (657). Writing within this retrospective frame of mind, Whitman implies that his theory of democratic poetry remains only one option out of a range of unspecified possibilities, making room for the rise of democratic bards in the future. In some moods, then, Whitman announces himself as an authoritative literary theorist, while at other moments he seems to realize that embracing democracy entails the evacuation of his own poetic authority: He most honors my style who learns under it to de-stroy the teacher (242).
What is to be gained by uncoupling Whitmans theory of democratic poetics from the force of his poetic example? This essay attempts to answer this question by surveying some alternative accounts of demo-cratic poetics. Without denying his seminal contribution to this general
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topic, I want to entertain the possibility of non-Whitmanian theories of democratic poetics, and in so doing, to point the way beyond Leaves of Grass as the normative standard for what it means to be democratic in poetry. Framing the issue as a theoretical problem serves to reverse the usual critical emphasis on Whitmans poetic influence, which charts the galvanizing effect of his poetry upon such later figures as Carl Sandburg, Hart Crane, and Allen Ginsberg.2 Instead, this essay traces a specific moment in U.S. literary history, the decades of the 1910s and 1920s, in order to show how modernist critics applied Whitmans theory in ways that depart from his original ideas, or, in some cases, how these critics explicitly rejected his views. Whitmans uneven reception in these years highlights two surprising facts about U.S. literary history and its theoretical foundations: first, that alternatives to Whitmans theory of democratic poetics were already available in U.S. literary discourse as early as 1912; and second, that a strain of the literary movement known as modernism, often aligned in politics with fascism, authoritarianism, or aristocratic elitism, was actually quite preoccupied with forging a connection between poetry and political democracy.
My claim that democratic poetics has a non-Whitmanian history complements recent work on U.S. historical poetics by Virginia Jackson, Yopie Prins, Eliza Richards, Max Cavitch, and others.3 In Dickinsons Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading, Jackson describes the historical process whereby various poetic modesriddles, papyrae, epigrams, songs, sonnets, blazons, Leider, elegies, dialogues, conceits, ballads, hymns, and odeswere gradually assimilated into a single poetic category of the lyric. The result of this process of lyricization, she explains, is noth-ing less than the emergence of the lyric genre as a modern mode of literary interpretation.4 Jackson uncovers this history in order to dem-onstrate that the lyric is not a transhistorical category, but a concept that evolved at a very specific moment in timebeginning in the era of Romanticism, passing through modernism, and continuing up to the present day. Historical perspective is also essential to rethinking the category of democratic poetics. Yet where Jackson teaches us to look beyond the conventions of twentieth-century modernism, which are too often treated as normative for earlier literary history, this essay suggests that we need to look forwards, beyond the major critical authorities of the nineteenth century. Unlike the all-purpose genre of the lyric, the problem with democratic poetics lies in the fact that this category is often construed too narrowly rather than too broadly. While Dickinsons stature as a canonical lyric poet gradually emerged in the first half of the twentieth century, Whitmans authority on democracy and poetry has rarely been called into question. In the skeptical account offered
here, to describe a poem as democratic does not characterize an object so much as expose a particular way of reading that has become deeply internalized and, thus, unexamined. Twentieth-century readers of Whitman demonstrate that his program was never that coherent in the first place, and could be put to many different uses. Rather than tacitly adopt some version of Whitmans theory, we need to acknowledge, along with his modernist critics, that there are a variety of models for what it means to read and write democratically.5
Whitmans Theory of Democratic Poetics
As a prelude to my discussion of these alternatives models, it will be useful to review the main tenets of Whitmans poetic theory. General-izing from scattered comments made throughout his prose, Whitmans theory consists of three negative doctrinesthe rejection of meter, the rejection of rhyme, and the rejection of conventional poetic dictionand one positive one, the use of the plain style. I am using form in the broadest sense to cover matters of rhythm and rhetoric. Needless to say, Whitman never described these four doctrines systematically, nor did he ever employ the phrase democratic poetics. Yet for the past century and a half, literary critics from Edmund Dowden (1871) to Angus Fletcher (2004) have based their analysis of democracy and poetry on one of these doctrines, and cite Whitman as their authority for doing so.
Out of the four elements that compose his democratic poetics, Whit-man is perhaps best known for associating democracy with the rejection of traditional poetic meter and rhyme: The truest and greatest Poetry, (while subtly and necessarily always rhythmic, and distinguishable eas-ily enough,) can never again, in the English language, be expressd in arbitrary and rhyming metre (1056). Whitmans scorn for the laws of metrical measurement and rhyme, as we see in this passage from Ventures, on an Old Theme (1872), is linked directly to his sense of freedom from the arbitrary authority of monarchy and aristocracy. Whitman thus echoes the note on The Verse in Paradise Lost, where John Milton claims that ancient liberty has been recoverd from the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming.6 In the Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman extended this argument to include liberation from meter, too: rhyme and meter allow abstract addresses and good precepts, he writes, but obstruct the autonomous expression of the soul. Perfect poems follow a different logic from that used in traditional, rule-based forms: they illustrate the free growth of metrical
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laws and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form (11). On this view, the absence of rhyme and [metrical] uniformity indicates a poets commitment to the free expression of (human) nature. The democratic citizen was entitled to free growth in his private imagina-tion just as in the public world of politics.
In addition to rejecting meter and rhyme, Whitman argued that the democratic poet must avoid artificial diction. He explains the third doc-trine of democratic poetics in this passage from Democratic Vistas (1870): To-day, doubtless, the infant genius of American poetic expression . . . lies sleeping, aside, unrecking itself, in some western idiom, or native Michigan or Tennessee repartee, or stump-speechor in Kentucky or Georgia, or the Carolinasor in some slang or local song or allusion of the Manhattan, Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore mechanicor up in the Maine woodsor off in the hut of the California miner . . . (980). American poetry becomes democratic only when it reproduces the vernacular idiom used in different regions of the nation. A poet who seeks out local dialects and conversational phrases proves his com-mitment to democracy by transgressing traditional class boundaries. By insisting on rugged, local speech, the democratic poet tears down the barrier between the coteries, the art-writers, the talkers and critics and working-class laborers like the mechanic or miner (980).
Fourth, and finally, Whitmans commitment to democratic poetics sometimes takes the form of defending the plain style, as when he de-clares, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. . . . What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me (14). In this appeal to artlessness, Whitman repeats a standard pastoral trope, one that reaches back to classical poets like Horace. Yet in Whitmans case, the plain style embodies the principles of equality and transparency that are emphatically linked to the ideals of modern democracy: The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us, We are no b